Over the years, I’ve encouraged you to pay attention to the way the gospel writers tell their stories. Each gospel writer had his own understanding of who Jesus was and what important message the gospel needed to convey and he shaped his story to conform to those overarching concerns. In a way this attention to difference among the gospels goes against human nature. It’s not just that we want to create a consistent and coherent narrative, it’s also that we combine details from different stories. Thus our nativity scenes bring together shepherds and wise men, and there’s a tradition of the “Seven Last Words of Christ” that put together Jesus’ final words from all four gospels.
This process of combination and conflation is nowhere more present than in the story of the Anointing of Jesus. The image reproduced on the cover of the service bulletin is an excellent example of how the tradition has conflated and manipulated various stories. We see a woman anointing Jesus’ feet. We know the artist is depicting Mary Magdalene. Her long, unbound hair marks her identity. In the tradition, Mary Magdalene became a repentant prostitute, though there’s no historical evidence to support this. Because her act of anointing (the tears suggest this) is an act of repentance, the woman who anoints is assumed to be a penitent sinner. (You can see the image here)
John’s version of the story is completely different. He clearly identifies the woman as Mary, Lazarus’ sister. She is from Bethany, so she couldn’t also be Mary Magdalene—for “Magdalene” here identifies this other Mary’s town of origin—Magdala. To conflate these two figures, and to turn the anointing into the act of a penitent prostitute has obscured the real significance of the act, and is another example of the Christian tradition’s denigration and subjugation of women. So, in spite of the image on our bulletin cover, leave all your assumptions about Mary Magdalene, sinful and penitent women aside, and let’s read the story with fresh eyes.
Our gospel reading brings us to the very edge of Holy Week—John tells us that Passover is six days away. It also occurs just after another momentous event—Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. It’s likely that John wants us to see this dinner as a celebration of that miracle. Family and friends have gathered to rejoice at this wholly unexpected turn of events. What a whiplash of emotions from the grief and sadness of mourning to unimaginable joy. It’s also likely that many in attendance wanted to know more about what happened. I suspect at least some were the first-century equivalents of gawkers. They were curious to see what someone who had been dead for four days and brought back to life might look like.
The story itself is quite simple, a version of similar stories in the other gospels. She acts with abandon and with no eye to what is respectable. To spend that much—a daily laborer’s annual wages—on perfume for Jesus was an outrageous act. Those in attendance at the dinner had to have been shocked. Even more shocking was what she did next: wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. She offended propriety and good manners. She transgressed all sorts of boundaries. Anointing was something men did to men. And for a woman publicly to touch and wipe a man’s feet! One thing the painter got right in our image. It was an erotically charged act.
For John’s gospel though, there are other meanings in what she does. It comes at the very end of Jesus’ public ministry—from now on, Jesus will teach only his disciples. So it’s a transitional moment in that way. And as such it looks back to the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. His first sign, when he turned water into wine at Cana was an act very much like Mary’s. To produce 120-180 gallons of wine during a party when all of the wine had already been consumed was an extravagant and profligate act. So too is Mary’s action here in spending a year’s salary on perfume, anointing Jesus with it, and wiping his feet with her hair.
It looks back in another subtle way. John makes note that the smell of the perfume filled the house. In chapter 11, when Jesus instructs them to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, Mary’s sister Martha reminds him that Lazarus has been dead four days and the stench will be overwhelming.
Mary’s actions also look ahead to what is to come. That’s obvious in one way, because Jesus explains what she does as preparing his body for burial. Less obviously, her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair foreshadows Jesus’ own actions in the next chapter. In John’s telling, at the Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, wiping them with the towel tied around his waist. In each case, the same Greek word for “wiped” is used. Jesus will use that act as a symbol for the service to which he calls his disciples—an example of the commandment he gave them:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Mary’s actions are the actions of someone who loved Jesus, the actions of a disciple. They stand in sharp contrast to the words of the other disciple who is given voice. In the story as told in the other gospels, the disciples raised their voices in protest. Here only Judas speaks up. John paints him in especially negative light. His stated concern for the poor is not sincere. He was in charge of the common purse and stole from it. John calls him a thief.
It’s easy to look at this story from our vantage point and join with Jesus in criticizing Judas. It may be more difficult to reflect honestly on how we might respond in a similar situation. Mary’s behavior is inappropriate, even offensive. She crosses the boundaries of what is acceptable. Imagine if one of the guests at a dinner party in which you were in attendance behaved that way! Imagine, too, your response if you knew she had spent so much money on perfume–$20,000? $30,000? How many of us would have reacted similarly to Judas: “She wasted that money! Think of how much food we could have purchased. That’s half the annual budget of our food pantry!”
Jesus’ response to Judas is often taken as an excuse by those who don’t want to provide for the neediest among us: there are always going to be poor people, no matter what we do, goes the thinking. But that’s not what is meant here. Jesus is contrasting between the continuing presence of the poor and his own departure. He’s saying in effect that there will continue to be opportunities to serve the poor, but there won’t be opportunities to tend to his needs after he is crucified and raised from the dead. He’s telling Judas and us that Mary’s actions are an appropriate way of showing her love for him. They are the actions of a true disciple.
They challenge us to think about how we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, to be his disciple. In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks a great deal about abundant life—life lived extravagantly, bountifully in response to God’s love of us, as it flows out of our transformed lives in Christ. Jesus offers us glimpses of that abundant life when he turned water into wine, when he knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples. He showed it most dramatically when he laid down his life for his friends and for us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” There’s no action more extravagant, superfluous in its love than that.
While Jesus shows the way to abundant life in John’s gospel and demonstrates what it means in his own actions, here is one of the few times in the gospel when we see someone other than Jesus offering an example of that abundant life. With no thought for consequences or propriety, with no thought of its economic implications, Mary pours a jar of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. In that extravagant, outrageous act, we see something of what it might mean to be so full of the abundant life offered by Jesus, that we can do nothing but share it with others, to let it flow out from ourselves in acts of generosity and mercy.